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Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

JEFF BLAIR

Creating a safe environment for children Add to ...

Respect is at the core of the issues dominating the public discourse about professional sports, be it headshots or blindside hits or helmet-to-helmet, bone-jarring tackles. And as the NHL and NFL have discovered, changing the culture of a sport is never just a matter of rewriting rules.

So for that reason, an initiative of Hockey Calgary - the organization governing minor hockey in that city - has attracted considerable attention both from media and minor-sports organizations beyond hockey. Based on principles espoused by Sheldon Kennedy and Wayne McNeill's Respect in Sport program, Hockey Calgary required this year that at least one parent from each family with a player registered in the system complete a one-hour, on-line course by Oct. 15. Those families who didn't follow through would find their child effectively benched.

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Merely completing an on-line course will not end all instances of rink rage. But the idea is to provide an organization's players, coaches, officials and, of course, parents with tools to deal with physical, sexual and emotional abuse and maltreatment, neglect and bullying. Given the legacy of the Graham Jameses of the world, this is all to the good.

But the course is also about getting parents to think about their role in creating a safe environment for their children, coaches and the referees who arbitrate kids' games.

The over-bearing stage parent is as much a fact of minor-sports life as a cup of coffee on a cold morning at an arena or a folding chair at a soccer or football game. But there is reason to wonder if, in the case of hockey, the examples of parental rage and involvement aren't impacted in some manner by the increasingly prohibitive cost of equipping a child and forking over money for ice time.

This is no imagined matter. Brian Burke, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, spent much time talking about the costs of playing the game in the lead-up to the Hockey Summit and the truth is, for all the high-brow, headline-grabbing yammering about matters such as the future of the NHL in the Olympics, there is no single greater issue facing the game at its grass-roots level.

It's cheap to roll a soccer ball out on to a field and go at it. Not so for hockey. At some point along the way, it became accepted for hockey equipment development to be treated as high science - and priced accordingly - even as minor hockey associations moved to crack down on entrepreneurs who were essentially "buying" kids teams and turning a profit by controlling ice time and registration fees.

This is not another shot at "hockey parents." Not by any stretch.

But ask yourself this the next time you are at your son or daughter's game: would it not be easier to get your kid to pass the puck quicker or keep his or her head up by talking to them after the game instead of yelling during the game? The time at the arena ought to be a time for coach and athlete and, in a perfect world, parents would be sequestered in a room where they could watch but not speak. Failing that, a grass-roots, cross-Canada, pro-active movement that focuses on respect for coaches and referees and players - and each other - sounds just fine to most of us.

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